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The new keys to success in fundraising today: Donor choice (Part 3)
Mal Warwick

January, 2011

In recent months, I’ve been developing a new perspective on fundraising, born of the increasing frustration I’ve felt trying to understand today’s fundraising environment through the lens of yesterday’s truths. Below is the third part of a long article I’ve drafted to begin laying out my new approach. Please let me know what you think.

Last month, I identified four guidelines or principles of donor care: choice, information, engagement, and commitment. Visit The new keys to success in fundraising today: New signposts for the road (Part 2). The month before we read The new keys to success in fundraising today (Part 1).

I’ll take a look first at the principle of choice. Now, why is this important? If you think about it for a minute, you’ll understand. Yesterday’s donors—my generation, and the generations before me—placed an enormous amount of trust in established institutions, including nonprofit organizations. We simply sent them our gifts and trusted them to use the money as they saw fit. But in the 1960s, 70s, and beyond, people encountered what was originally called the “credibility gap,” starting with the federal government but gradually extending to all of society’s major institutions. People growing up against that backdrop learned to distrust established institutions.

Now, add to that the tendency we’ve all seen in increasing numbers of donors to gain a say in how we use their money. That’s true of people today in practically every age group up to age 60 or so.  And that’s why donor choice is so important today.

The four dimensions of donor choice

Now, in thinking about choice, it’s convenient to consider the four main dimensions that may enter into your donors’ or prospects’ decision-making: program, location, channel, and intermediary. I’ll explain each in turn now.

  • Program. When people talk about donor choice, they often mean choice of program. Most nonprofits resist offering choices of this sort because of the inefficiencies and possible accounting and reporting problems caused by earmarking funds for specific programs. However, my colleagues and I have consistently found over the years that about 70% of donors will elect to leave the choice to you if you offer that general option. Perhaps that will make program choice a little easier for your CFO to swallow!
  • Location. But donors are at least equally concerned, and probably more concerned, about where their funds are used. In fact, many donors will only support local charities. Their concept of philanthropy is to give back to their communities. If your organization is regional or national and has both a central office and satellite offices or chapters, you’ll probably receive at least a little bit better response if you solicit gifts that will go to the donor’s nearest local office. And that response may be much better if the money will stay in-country rather than go outside the borders.

However, at the same time, there are donors who are concerned above all with the Big Picture. They’re looking for nationwide or global impact, so they tend to seek out causes that address the biggest issues in the broadest ways.

  • Channel. More and more these days, donors are developing new communications patterns as technology continues to evolve. A donor you recruited by mail 10 years ago might now insist on communicating—and giving—only online. Another one who has been a supporter only through your Web site might only become a responsive donor when you start to send her old-fashioned mail or call her on the phone. The bottom line is that most of your donors today have incorporated many channels into their day-to-day lives—email, telephone landlines, and mobile phones, at a minimum. And they use more than one channel to connect with your organization—or want to do so. Some prefer one channel, others another. You’ve got to start learning what those preferences are, and offer them choices that will maximize the likelihood of getting the gifts you need.
  • Intermediary. Now, I hope you know that practically none of your donors think they’re supporting your organization. The gifts they send you are intended to support the people you’re helping. You’re just a conduit to them, as far as your donors are concerned. Your job is connect donors with beneficiaries—and don’t ever forget it!

And do I have to tell you that your organization isn’t the only charity on the block? In the United States, there are, by various counts, between one and one-and-a-half million nonprofits. If your mission is truly unique, your organization is truly exceptional. But that’s unlikely. Chances are, lots of others are doing more or less the same work. And if they’re doing a better job of meeting donors’ needs than you are, your donorfile is going to shrink. Guaranteed.

 Visit Mal Warwick at  MalWarwicknews.com



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